by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (October 2013)
With Jonathan Schanzer and Shoshana Bryen
On August 21, 2013, a sarin gas chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburb of Jobar killed an estimated 1,429 including men, women and 400 children. It was the latest calumny in a 28 month long civil war in Syria pitting forces of the Assad regime against internal warring rebel forces. Those include the allegedly moderate Free Syria Army and Islamist groups, Jabhat al Nusra (Nusra Front) and the al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS. The civil war in Syria has claimed more than 110,000 lives. The 1993 UN International treaty (Chemical Weapons Convention) prohibited development, stockpiling and use of Chemical Weapons. Notwithstanding, the Assad regime has, according to intelligence estimates, more than 1,000 tons in stockpiles controlled by a loyal Alawite force, Unit 450. According to some informed US intelligence sources, a portion of the Syrian chemical weapons may have been transferred to Syria by the late Saddam Hussein regime under the watchful eyes of Russian Spetsnaz troops just prior to the US invasion in 2003. Syria has Scud and M-600 Missiles equipped with chemical warheads that are capable of hitting targets in neighboring countries; Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. The Middle East has had a long history of chemical weapons use evidenced in Saddam Hussein’s offensive use during the Iran-Iraq war that killed tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers and more than 6,800 Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja during the Al-Anfal Campaign in 1988.
The news of the Jobar, Syria chemical weapons attack prodded President Obama to hold a White House Press conference on August 31, 2013 accusing Assad of committing a war crime. He sought Congressional approval of a military reprisal launched from a US flotilla of destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean and a CVA battle group positioned in the Red Sea. In less than 48 hours that White House announcement of a punitive action against targets in Assad’s Syria was upended by a Russian proposal. President Putin responded to a casual comment by Secretary of State Kerry. Kerry in a press conference suggested that the only way the US raid on Syria could be averted was if the Assad regime consented to international control and disposal of its non-conventional chemical weapons stockpile. President Putin took up the bait, hoisting the US on its causal suggestion by obtaining a commitment from the Assad regime to comply with international control. President Obama confronted with the Putin proposal had no choice but to give his assent while initially suggesting that he still held the military option as a steel fist in a velvet glove. In a subsequent deal reached at the UN in late September even that option folded. A subsequent report on forensic analysis of materials obtained from the Jobar gassing site by the Hague-based UN Office of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons verified the use of sarin gas but did not assess blame. The Assad regime subsequently filed an inventory of chemical weapons stockpiles in compliance with the UN brokered deal. However, as evidenced by the late Libyan strongman Gaddafi 2007 agreement with the US to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles, the overthrow of his regime in the NATO supported episode in 2011 revealed that large stocks of these non-conventional weapons still remained.
The Obama Administration acceptance of the Russian suggested deal that had been in discussion for more than a year on background effectively sealed the Syrian rebels’ campaign to oust the Assad regime. This effectively preserved Iran’s Shia crescent link to the Mediterranean via Syria and proxy terrorist group Hezbollah. This also bolstered Russia’s ability to both sell weapons and preclude Sunni Supremacist support for Chechen and Dagestani Jihadist groups in Southern Russia. This move had effectively estranged the Obama Administration from its Sunni allies in the Middle East: Turkey, Qatar, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia who had backed Syrian rebel forces. Although both the Emirates and Saudi Arabia disavowed the presence of Islamist and al Qaida backed contingents, American public opinion in polls revealed pronounced isolationist sentiments across the political spectrum from left to right on the matter of a US Syrian military initiative as not being in this country’s national security interests. That left some proponents of intervention and support of Syrian rebels likes Republican senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) marginalized.
That concerned America’s only trustworthy ally in the region, Israel. Israel was troubled about whether the US was folding its cards given a charm offensive at the UN General Assembly by newly elected Iranian President Rouhani. Rouhani through Twitter messages had suggested a new willingness to reach out to the US to discuss a possible accommodation on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting critical financial sanctions. To demonstrate a possible new era in relations with the US and the West, Rouhani was bringing as part of his UN General Assembly delegation, Iran’s sole Jewish member of its Parliament. Thus, indicating a change of the position of his anti-Semitic predecessor, Ahmadinejad. There were even rumors of possible face to face meetings between Presidents Obama and Rouhani at the UN General Assembly session in Manhattan in late September 2013. These developments were viewed positively by the international media effectively isolating Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Independent assessments indicated that Iran may likely achieve its first nuclear weapons capability within less than six months. That assessment was based on more than 16,000 whirling centrifuges in deep underground cascade halls enriching uranium and start up of the above ground plutonium producing Arak heavy water reactor allegedly used for research purposes. Rouhani is not in control of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei is the only one who makes those decisions.
If the Obama Administration influence was being eclipsed in Syria and Iran, it completely defaulted its position in the Egypt with the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi a former Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leader by military strongman, Col. General al-Sisi. This was followed by the jailing of thousands of MB leaders and cadres throughout Egypt as well as murderous clashes with violent MB extremists. As late as mid-June 2013, just two weeks prior to Morsi’s ouster, the Obama National Security Council held a meeting in the White House with an MB preacher allegedly seeking information on formulating a position combating al Qaeda rhetoric. The Tamarod (rebellion) petition movement caught fire among tens of millions of Egyptians who flooded the streets of major cities on June 30, 2013. It was a signal that the MB and Salafist allies’ objective of creating an Emirate to be governed under a Shariah compliant constitution had failed. The Obama Administration persisted in questioning Morsi’s overthrow by Gen. al-Sisi, who had been appointed by Morsi as the country’s Defense Minister. The White House and Pentagon announced suspension of the military assistance of $1.5 billion that appeared paltry when compared to the $12 billion pledged by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both of whom oppose the spread of MB doctrine in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the interim government appointed by Gen. al-Sisi was crafting a secular replacement Constitution separating Mosque from State and outlawing MB and Salafist parties.
Against this background, we convened another in our periodic Middle East Round table discussions.
Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates. We are having one of our periodic Middle East roundtable discussions. With me in the studio is Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog “the Iconoclast”. You can find Jerry online at www.newenglishreview.org. Jerry, welcome.
Gordon: Good to be back Mike.
Bates: Joining us by telephone from Washington D.C. is Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, online at www.defenddemocracy.org. Jonathan, welcome.
Jonathan Schanzer: Thank you.
Bates: And also from Washington D.C. is Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center, online at www.jewishpolicycenter.org.
Shoshana Bryen: Nice to be here.
Bates: Welcome Shoshana. Jonathan let me open the questioning with you. Obviously the big news is Syria and the use of chemical weapons there and the United States' reaction or non-reaction. What's happening?
Schanzer: I can tell you that here in Washington we have whiplash just trying to keep up with the President's decisions on what should or should not be done with respect to Syria. Initially after the use of chemical weapons in late August the President indicated that he was intent upon punishing the regime for its war crimes. From there, you saw a defection of the U.K., a decision by the Parliament there to not allow the Brits to get into the action with the U.S. This spooked Mr. Obama who then stepped back from the brink. He then stepped forward again with the idea that he would take this not to the international community but rather to Congress. From there, we learned that members of Congress were deeply divided, bitterly divided, over this question of intervention and whether this was an issue that the U.S. should, in fact, engage. Mr. Obama was saved by none other than Vladimir Putin who came out and basically offered to help rid Syria of chemical weapons. The thing that is very disconcerting for us watching this is: again the President seems to have changed his mind. Ironically, Bashar al-Assad war criminal, but the deal makes him an equal partner in the disarming of Syria. It ensures that he will survive because we are not going to go in. I’m having a very hard time trying to understand what it is that the President is trying to accomplish vis-a-vis foreign policy in the Middle East and we're waiting now for the next installment.
Bates: Jonathan if we could avoid armed conflict that normally would be a good thing, geopolitically speaking, is there a winner or a loser here? Have the Russians gained more influence in the Middle East as a result of this?
Schanzer: First of all, I think that the big losers were the moderate or secular opposition of non-Islamist rebels in Syria. They were expecting the West to do something after Assad’s war crime. You definitely have other losers in the region such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. All three of those countries were banking on the United States to do something and intervene. The winners are Iran, which has an interest in the perpetuation of the Assad clan running Syria. This has long been their goal. This is why they're basically pumping money, arms, and training into Syria to keep the Assad regime afloat. Obviously, the Assad clan also came out as big winners because they will fight another day. And then there is, of course, Russia. Vladimir Putin has definitely shown up the United States. He wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times basically sticking a thumb in the eye of the President of the United States, deriding American exceptionalism. He now looks to many in the region as the man who can get things done. This is extremely dangerous given the fact that Vladimir Putin did not do this because he is seeking peace in the Middle East or because he's trying to help calm the civil war. He sees the Syrians as a valuable client where he sells weapons and exerts influence throughout the region. He is doing this for his own gains and this does not bode well for the future of the Middle East.
Bates: Shoshana, a big deal has been made about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime or as believed to be by the Assad regime. I don't think that has been definitively proved either way. Historically this is not the first that chemical weapons have been used in a Middle East conflict is it?
Bryen: No it's not. I would point out that the United Nations was very careful that although it said Sarin gas was used, it is clear on what was used, the report was very careful not to name the Assad government as the user. They need the Assad government now, as Jonathan said, as a partner with the United States and Russia in the chemical weapons classification and destruction. The U.N. did not say that it was the government. Chemical weapons have a long history of use in the Middle East, always against a party that could not retaliate in kind, which is by the way, the whole story of chemical weapons use. The Germans used chemical weapons against the British in World War I. In World War II they didn't. History tells you it's because Hitler was affected by the gas in World War I. This is not true. It's because the British had poison gas themselves and they were prepared to use it. Hitler used gas against the population that couldn't retaliate; that would be the Jews. Egypt used poison gas in the 1960's. The Egyptian government had it, the government of Yemeni didn't have it. Iraq used it against Iran in the 1980's and there's a great story. The U.S. Commerce Department actually approved a license to sell Saddam Hussein atropine injectors, chemical weapons antidotes, which the Iraqis wanted to have on hand while they were gassing the Iranians to protect themselves against blowback. If they were protected they would use the gas. The sale never happened because a Pentagon official threatened to have a public press conference about it. Even without the atropine, Saddam went on to kill upwards of 10,000 Iranians and as many as 5,000 Kurds with chemicals weapons – and as in every case, it was used where the victim had no non-conventional capabilities.
I would say also that in Libya we thought we had collected the entire Libyan stock of chemical weapons in 2004 when Gaddafi turned it over to the United States and Britain. It turned out, in 2011 we discovered two other major large plants for chemical weapon production. Even when you think you know what you are doing, even when you think you've got it all you may not have it all.
Gordon: Not only chemical weapons but the more dangerous biological warfare capabilities of Syria are interesting because they have also been supplied by dual use materials and laboratories. Jon, how did Mossad obtain intelligence on Assad's CW Program?
Schanzer: There have been some reports about this. The Israelis have been aware of the chemical stockpiles in Syria's possession for more than 15 years. I remember reading about these, both outside and inside of government, that there was a keen awareness of the fact that they possessed these stockpiles. Back in 2002, I remember an article that suggested there were 5,000 chemical warheads in Syria's possession. Obviously, the Israelis and the United States had been following Syria very closely with their unconventional weapons stockpiles. Notably in 2007, the Israelis bombed a nuclear reactor, or a nuclear facility, that was built with North Korean assistance. This was a story that was recently retold by Elliott Abrams, formerly of the National Security Council under George W. Bush. Certainly, over these last several years, as the Arab Spring has erupted and the uprising began in Syria, the Israelis have put assets on the ground. They have had to go above and beyond to get a sense of where these weapons are, and to keep track of them. We've seen several explosions take place in Syria believed to be attributed to the Israelis. I think they will take out whatever they need to if they believe that these weapons are being put into the hands of the wrong people. I'm referring to this question of whether Syria is handing off these chemical weapons to Hezbollah. There have been reports that Hezbollah has received some of these weapons. You have to remember, of course, that Hezbollah along with the IRGC Shia militias. It is therefore not surprising that Hezbollah would be in the vicinity of some of these weapons or even be able to take control of them.
Bates: Shoshana, these chemical weapons that Syria has, Jonathan just said that they've had them for 15 years. That precedes the United States going into Iraq under George W. Bush. I know there were reports that prior to that invasion that chemical weapons were being transferred to Syria. Has there been any updated information on that?
Bryen: Not directly. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. Army Intelligence reported that it believed that Iraqi chemical weapons were being taken to Syria. They pinpointed the trucks. They pinpointed the starting and ending point. That bit of information however seems to have been fairly well scrubbed from official U.S. documents. Nobody seems to want to remember that happened. But then, an interesting thing happened. When General Dempsey went to testify to Congress about Syrian chemical weapons he talked about the Syrians having far more stock and in more places than the United States had thought they held. I think General Dempsey was suggesting that the Army intelligence of 2002 might have been correct. There are Syrian chemical weapons made and owned by the Syrians, but they may also have their hands on Iraqi chemicals from the old days.
Gordon: To verify what you are talking about Shoshana, I overheard recently former Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence Major General Paul Vallely confirm that in 2003 Russian Spetsnaz troops were the ones who loaded some of the same weapons both chemical and biological that were trailered across the border into Syria. Some of the more toxic stuff was allegedly dumped into the Indian Ocean to destroy those stocks.
Gordon: Jon, there has been a lot of confusion about who the opposition is in Syria. Can you give us a profile of them and what others see is the problem with the opposition?
Schanzer: I should just note that the opposition wasn't this complex or challenging or dangerous when the uprising first began in Syria. There were components of it that included the Muslim Brotherhood. I met some of those individuals back when this all began, and there was some discomfort, but you know, broadly speaking, I think there were better opportunities to work with them then than there are now. Now, I have to say that two years on, as we have sat on the sidelines of this conflict and allowed things to fester, and allowed for foreigners to get involved, and allowed for regional powers to begin to provide money, weapons and training of these organizations, it has become a much messier “witches brew” of a battle space. What we have now is an estimate. I don't think anybody really has a real good idea of exactly how many individuals are fighting with the opposition in Syria. Let's just say for the sake of argument that there are 150,000 fighters that are trying to topple the Assad regime. What I hear is roughly half of them belong to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). People say that the FSA is secular. I am not sure. The problem there is that there is a very weak chain of command. It's all under a figure by the name of General Idriss who has a very difficult time keeping track of who's with him and who's not — who's adhering to his directives and who isn't. And so that’s sort of 50% of the opposition and it is still a very cloudy picture. These are the people we talk about when we speak of the vetted opposition. I don't believe they are fully vetted. They are, in many cases, problematic, but nevertheless they're the best we've got. From there you have a significant component, perhaps another 20% or so, that are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These are Islamists who would like to see a Sharia state in some shape or form come after the fall of Bashar al-Assad. They are not the Taliban but they are certainly not democrats and don't view the creation of a new Syrian state in the way that we would. From there, we hear about other Islamists which include Salafists. These are individuals who would embrace a more stringent Sharia state. We hear a lot of talk about quietist Salafists. In other words, Salafists that aren't necessarily involved in violence against the West. They still give me pause. I should say here that I am not comforted by anyone telling me, “Well, they're not really bad Salafists. They're just Salafists.” That's a distinction that I have a very difficult time with. And then from there, you get to perhaps a figure that has been estimated at about five or six thousand of the hard-core Jihadis. These are groups that belong to the Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra as it's called in Arabic, or the Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS as it's known. These are two of the primary Jihadi groups. And there are of course other factions as well. These include foreign fighters from across the Middle East. It is a dangerous patchwork of groups that we are looking at here. I don't believe that they pose a direct threat to the West in their current formulation. I think they are still relatively small in number, all things considered. The powers surrounding Syria? I don't think would ever allow them to gain a real foothold. That includes Turkey, Jordan, and to be sure Israel. The Israelis don't seem terribly concerned about a rebel victory, even if there was a significant component of Jihadis. The Israelis that I have talked to have indicated to me that they would be OK with the current situation where you've got Assad basically in a stalemate with the opposition. They would also be OK with the opposition taking over and potentially having a broken up Syria for some period of time. How long we don't know. What the Israelis are most concerned with, however, is if Assad is able to come out victorious and to break the back of the rebels. Then Assad becomes basically a shell of a leader who is owned and controlled by the Iranians. He can then begin to turn his sights on the Israelis with these stockpiles.
Bates: Jonathan it sounds like if the rebels are able to end the Civil War with Assad, they are just going to have a Civil War amongst themselves.
Schanzer: That's right. And we are seeing Al-Qaida groups attacking some of the more secular ones. We are seeing infighting amidst these various factions. We may be seeing the breakup of Syria into at least three separate states, not unlike what some were predicting in Iraq. In other words, you would have an Alawite area that I'm sure the Alawites would hold on to in some shape or form. That would be on the West Coast. You are going to have a muddled middle of Sunnis and we're not even sure whether that would be one entity or perhaps several. Then, the Kurdish areas which are already basically under Kurdish control, and I think they are out of the reach broadly speaking of the Assad regime. It will become a much fractured landscape and you will see infighting among these various factions if and when Assad falls.
Bates: Those are the internal players but there are certainly external players as well. I know for example Qatar is funding the opposition and has for quite some time wanted to see the Assad government fall. I have read some published reports that have to do with their desire for a natural gas pipeline that would transit through Syria to go into Europe via Turkey and that the Assad regime would not allow it. So Qatar wants to get rid of him so that they can do this. The Russians don't want that to happen because now they provide natural gas to Europe. These are all the pieces on the chessboard. What is Qatar’s interest in overthrowing the Assad government?
Schanzer: That story about the natural gas pipeline could very well be correct. I'm actually just back from a trip to Qatar, and the way that it was described to me is that Qatar is basically trying to become, along with the Turks, the leader of the so-called Muslim Brotherhood bloc. There was this view, that with Mohamed Morsi's Egypt and with Tunisia and other Muslim Brotherhood governments popping up around the region, that this was an opportunity for Qatar to really exert some leadership, and the Turks as well. Both of them saw themselves as the financiers and the political leadership of this movement and they viewed Syria as another component of this broader trend. Now, of course, things have changed drastically over the last couple of months, with Mohamed Morsi being toppled by the Egyptian Military. The Qataris and Turks are finding it difficult to exert leverage in other places, as well. The Turks are deeply troubled by what they are seeing. They have lost control, and I don't think that they are going to get their Muslim Brotherhood government, in at least the way that they initially envisioned. I don't think that they are going to be able to establish one. And so both countries are just fighting to maintain some leverage. Quite frankly, what they are trying to do is to simply prevent the rise of Iran in that region. These are two Sunni powers who are deeply concerned about this so-called Shiite Arc that might emerge with the end of the Civil War and the victory by Assad. They are trying to prevent that. And don't forget also that they are trying to fight off the advances of Saudi Arabia, which also has its own designs on Syria. The Saudis are not big fans of the Brotherhood and so you've got regional and world powers involved here. And that's why it's gotten as complex as it has in Syria.
Bates: Jonathan let me ask about that Iranian government. Why are the Iranians strangely silent? The new Iranian President Rouhani has restated the policy of the Iranians that their nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes. What do you have to say about that?
Schanzer: The Iranians have been doing everything they can to keep Assad in power. This means putting their troops on the ground. Their special forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, and their Shiite militias are on the ground there. They’ve dispatched Hezbollah on the ground there. They're doing everything they can, and they are throwing money hand over fist at the regime to try to keep it in place. They are trying to keep a low profile as they do so, but we know exactly what they are doing. The idea, as some Iranian officials have said, that they are trying to make peace in that country, is laughable. At the end of the day, what they are doing is waging a brutal war and then telling everyone that is basically the Iranians who can stop it. Of course, they could stop it. They could stop funding, financing, training and even fighting alongside the Syrian forces. I think it's also worth noting that Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, who recently penned an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, said that he seeks to help bring peace to Syria. Again, he may want to do that, but at the end of the day his government is doing something very different. Similarly, he said that he is willing to speak with the United States in an open engagement policy that he has established through this Op-Ed and through his Twitter account. He is trying to hammer home this notion that he is a moderate and that he is someone with whom the West can work. My response is that he may well be a moderate. He could be a moderate. But what I believe is that he actually has very little to do with the ultimate policies, particularly the foreign and defense policies, of Iran. Those are all in the hands of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It is Khamenei alone who will determine whether or not those centrifuges continue to spin and whether Iran crosses that nuclear threshold. It will be up to Khamenei to decide whether Hezbollah fires rockets at the Israelis. It will be up to Khamenei to decide whether or not Iran supports the Assad regime in the face of this rebellion. We are talking to the wrong man. He may well be a moderate. I think it's still yet to be proven. Right now he is the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for a very dangerous regime.
Bates: What do you think is the status of the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program? There was a Reuters report recently that Benjamin Netanyahu seems to think that the Iranians will have nuclear weapons capability within six months. Do you share that assessment?
Schanzer: I don't want to challenge what the Prime Minister of Israel has to say about this. I know he's got an intelligence apparatus that's probably a lot better than mine. We have seen reports that suggest breakout within eight to ten months–not too far from what Netanyahu is telling us right now. We've seen that within eight to ten months, if centrifuges are spinning at the current rate and at the current numbers that they have now, then the Iranians will be able to achieve undetectable breakout, in between visits of weapons inspectors. They would be able to do that by June of next year. And so this is obviously extremely serious, and something that we want to prevent at all costs. We are concerned that this charm offensive by the Iranians, and specifically by President Rouhani, is an attempt to get the United States to let down its guard. To say, “let's give these guys a shot and we'll give them sanctions relief.” We'll actually allow them to bulk back up on the cash reserves that they need to survive and then go right back to the business of trying to break out with a nuclear weapon. This is the danger. I feel like this looks like Lucy and the football, and it's something that we should not fall for. We need to make sure that the Iranians meet our demands on a whole host of issues related to that nuclear program before any other concessions are made on our part.
Bates: I share that assessment. I think that under any circumstances there is no possibility that we should allow the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon, period. No matter what it takes to deny them that capability we must go through with it. Here's a question for you Jonathan. I've heard the administration say that if Congress does not green light the United States attacking Syria over their use of chemical weapons it will signal to the Iranians that we will do nothing about their nuclear weapons. Do you share that concern?
Schanzer: I've heard that and there may be some truth to it but I can also tell you that there is another side to this as well: that the United States is so bitterly divided over the question of military force and whether we should be intervening in yet another conflict in the Middle East, that one could argue that we need to keep our powder dry. Going into Syria right now may actually prevent us, especially if things go badly, from doing the one thing that we really need to do, above all else. And that is to prevent the Iranians from going nuclear and that could include military intervention.
Gordon: Shoshana, turning to Egypt, it looks like we have a new Nasser emerging. There seems to be some grassroots sentiment that if there is going to be an election under this new replacement Constitution he might turn out to be one of the leading Presidential contenders. What about this replacement Constitution? Where is that going?
Bryen: On the possibility that General al-Sisi will run for President, there is grass root sentiment in favor. There are a lot of people in Egypt who believe that he rescued them from a very bad fate and they would like to reward that with the Presidency. He has said that he won't run. This would be a good place for the United States to weigh in on that idea – except that we have no influence in Cairo because of our prior choices. This would be a good place for us to talk to General al-Sisi about his role as a statesman and not an elected President of Egypt, but we can't because we don't talk to him. It shows our ineffectualness, our inability to influence what's happening in Egypt. The fact of our irrelevance is also important when you look at what happened this week regarding the draft Egyptian Constitution. The interim governing council is formulating a new Constitution. One of the conversations that has to be had in the Middle East about “democracy” – and I say the word “democracy” in quotes – is how to construct a government that operates under the rule of law. In many countries in the Middle East, and elsewhere, you have strong man governments and weak parliaments, essentially one man rule. The Egyptian Constitution is looking to strengthen the legislature, weaken the President. People on the commission have specifically said maybe it's time for Egypt to have a less powerful President and a more powerful legislature. That is the beginning of wisdom for Egypt. That is the beginning of figuring out how to create rule of law and separation of powers, from which all kinds of good things can come for the people. Here again, the United States has a lot of experience with this, a lot to say about this – and no influence in Cairo. We have completely blown away the opportunity to help the Egyptians at a moment when Egypt looks like it's going to do something unprecedented. Where we might have been able to talk General al-Sisi and encourage him to stick with his plan not to run for President, and where we might have been able to encourage the governing council to produce a Constitution that has separation of powers, we're not in a position to do it. Also up the American ally, the Egyptian interim government has suggested not allowing religious parties to run for electoral positions. The Constitution appears at the moment as if it will forbid religious parties. This is again something the United States is very conversant with; we understand how that works and why it is a good thing. Separation of church and state – mosque and state if you will – is another place that we could have been enormously helpful to people who appear to be doing the right things. But we have no influence in Cairo.
Bates: Would that decrease the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood or would they simply set up what are ostensibly secular parties and rule with the Islamist ideology anyway?
Bryen: They will probably set up ostensibly secular parties unless the Muslim Brotherhood is forced to disband. There is a question now as to whether they'll be permitted to be a legal organization at all, in which case, the government may confiscate its assets and it might have a hard time reforming into a new party under any name. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, will not disappear. It's very old, it originated in Egypt and it has survived through hangings, imprisonment and banning. The ideology will survive. The hope is that if the Egyptian people can vote for a government that is grounded in rule of law, separation of powers and secular parties rather than religion, they will have an opportunity to put religion into its proper place – or what we consider in the United States its proper place – and the government will be able to focus on the needs of the people. I don't expect the Muslim Brotherhood to disappear in any event, but its power will be weakened.
Bates: Jonathan how bad is the economy in Egypt right now? I know that the U.S. has largely suspended military aid but Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have put up pledges of upwards of 12 billion dollars. Has any of that actually materialized yet and how bad is the Egyptian economy which relies so heavily on tourism that is nearly non-existent right now?
Schanzer: They are in bad shape. That is the only way to put it. I mean, I saw a report today that they just turned away a couple of billion dollars that the Qataris tried to provide them as sort of bridge loans. Because the loans weren't structured properly they had to give it back. You have a dwindling of the cash reserves, an inability to pay down their debts, and to really even to make payroll, for that matter. There is no foreign cash coming in because of the dearth of tourism. And so you get a sense that this is a crisis that could actually become far worse in revolutionary Egypt. I predict — and I don't like to predict very much in this region– but I predict another revolution, one where people are beginning to demand government subsidies because they don't have enough to eat.
Gordon: Jon, let’s go back to Erdogan's Turkey. There have been more protests there but he's also harboring Hamas operatives. What's going on there?
Schanzer: We have been aware of the fact that Hamas has been on the dole from Turkey for some time. There were reports last year of about 250 to 300 million dollars, as well as Turkish support for building hospitals, mosques and other things inside the Gaza Strip. Sort of a strange thing for a NATO ally and the US to be doing. For lots of different reasons, the U.S. has really punted on challenging the Turks about this. Unsatisfied with the way that I've seen policy conducted, I decided to dig a little bit deeper. I published recently in Foreign Policy Magazine that Erdogan is now harboring a man by the name of Saleh al-Arouri. He is the head of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the terrorist arm of Hamas for the West Bank. He is based in Turkey. He is operating out of Turkey. And I believe now it's time for the West to take a closer look at Turkey’s Hamas support.
Gordon: Shoshana, September 13th was the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. Is a two-state solution illusory between the Israelis and the Palestinians and what lessons have we learned in twenty years?
Bryen: First of all there are four existing states today that have a stake in this process: Israel, Jordan, Fatah-stan on the West Bank and Hamas-stan in Gaza. To get to a “two-state solution,” two states have to disappear. Even to get a two-state solution excluding Jordan, which I don't exclude because I think it's a major player, one of the three states between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River has to disappear. Either the Hamas state, the Fatah state or Israel. Now I know which ones the Palestinians would like to have disappear; I think the Israelis would think something else. As far as who has learned what, I think the Arabs have learned that if you engage the United States in discussions, if you bring the United States in as a partner, it doesn't matter whether you make progress or not. It only matters that the United States will not want anything to happen to the process. The United States is totally process driven. We've driven the process for twenty years and I believe if we can drive it for another twenty years, the Palestinians will be content and the Israelis will not.
Gordon: Jon, you've written an interesting piece recently about the conflict between the rising sentiments of neo-isolationism, entitled, “Neo-centrism.” What do you mean by that term?
Schanzer: It all begins with some conversations that I've had with State Department officials, staffers on the Hill, and members of Congress. The sense right now is that there is a lot of frustration with the so-called Obama doctrine. Everybody knows that the President says that he's been elected to get us out of wars rather than get us into a new one. But nobody really understands what we're supposed to do in the face of a chemical weapons attack by Syria or a nuclear Iran. All of the decisions seems to be at the whim of one man who has very little experience in conducting foreign policy. There is a sense now that there is no answer to the growing isolationist wing. You've got the far right and the far left in America, coming together, bending the spectrum so to speak, and connecting at the fringes. They now represent a pole where they say that America should not get involved and should not try to influence foreign affairs, even if there are massacres going on. Even if there are gross violations of human rights. What you have is a center left and a center right that is absolutely starving for some direction, and they are now looking for something new. Having now rejected the Obama Doctrine and being aware now that they cannot return to what we call neo-conservatism, which was popular during the Bush years, there is an attempt right now to try to embrace the idea that there are threats as articulated by neo-conservatism that we need to be careful about. What kind of boots we put on the ground and how much we commit to these various conflicts depends on American interests. They are trying to balance these things and to come up with a clear and articulate vision of a foreign policy after five years of really not having one.
Bates: How much of it Jonathan, is fatigue from more than a decade of war and how much of it is that the American people perceive the situation in Syria as being a Syrian problem? I haven't heard anybody make a legitimate prediction that it would spill over to the West. Why do you think that there is not the willingness of the American people to go into Syria even if it was only by air? Do you think it's just war weariness or is it because they don't really perceive it as a threat?
Schanzer: I think it's all of the above. I think that there is war weariness. We're definitely wary of putting let’s say a billion dollars a month into a no-fly zone when we're just trying to get back on our feet here financially. We're dealing with sequester and everything else. I also think that it is a by-product of the President of the United States doing too good of a job over the last five years delegitimizing what now has to be done in the region. In other words, he has been saying for the last five years that that Iraq was a mistake. That Afghanistan was a mistake. That the war on terrorism was a mistake, and that we shouldn't be worried about these things. At the end of the day, I think Americans now realize that Al-Qaida has not gone anywhere. It's not dead. It's not decimated. It's not receding. The problem of autocrats with chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction hasn't gone anywhere either. Islamism is not receding. The ideology behind all this radicalism in the region still poses a threat to the United States. The America that found itself somewhat comfortable with their President's articulation of a non-foreign policy is now scratching its head and wondering what are we supposed to do when we see massive violations taking place on the world's stage? What I was trying to document is basically an attempt by some to try a course correction, which is very difficult to do when in Washington where it is ultimately the President who sets foreign policy.
Bates: It is interesting if not ironic that the biggest anti-war activists are now pushing for war.
Bryen: I would add one thing to what Jonathan said – I'm not sure the American people are isolationist in the sense of not wanting to go abroad for our national interest. I think many people are concerned that this President, given the choices he has made, would not execute a military operation overseas in a way that would make us safer. They don't want to undertake an operation with a Commander in Chief in whom they have no confidence.
Gordon: Shoshana, there were hearings in Washington this week again on Benghazi except they had a remarkable turn. What happened?
Bryen: The biggest, the most important thing that happened in these hearings was the discovery that people who were in Benghazi have been pressured heavily to sign non-disclosure agreements. In fact one man said that he has been suspended from the State Department because he refused to sign his NDA. That raised everybody’s hackles. What appears also to have happened is that the CIA confirmed the reports by Ambassador Stevens, that the situation in Benghazi was so dangerous that the United States needed to produce more security for them much earlier. There were hints of this back in May, that Ambassador Stevens had asked for upgrades of security equipment to keep an airplane on standby for them, but the State Department had said no to all of that. The CIA has now essentially come out and said the reason they weren't in that building with the State Department representatives was because CIA didn't consider it secure enough – they thought they could do better for themselves. It didn't work very well for them, but they declined to work in the same building as the diplomats because they understood the difficulty and the dangers inherent in being there with local “security.” The State Department now has to backtrack and explain itself. It's a lot harder, too, because the political revelation of the week is that the so-called “Independent” Review Commission wasn't very independent. The Chairmen – Ambassador Pickering and Adm. Mullen – were chosen by the State Department and they were advising it all along: who to send to Congress to testify and what kinds of witnesses would be good or not good. It further turned out that the Review Commission declined to talk to Secretary of State Clinton at any point, having determined for itself that the responsibility and all the useful information was at a lower level. The State Department is now tripping over itself and actually it's tripping over Hilary Clinton. It's going to be a very interesting Fall season.
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